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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Newspaper Records by Ryan Taylor, revised by Susanna de Groot, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
When we think of newspapers, we probably think of community papers marketing general news to everyone in a particular geographical area. There are many other journals, also in the news business, but with a specialised market. The news they purvey concerns itself with a particular topic, but is equally current and the publication is shortlived in its physical form. It is meant to be read and discarded, as the community newspapers are.
There are a great many of these special papers across Canada, and they contain material advantageous to the genealogist. Ethnic newspapers have a clear appeal to an immigrant population (and everyone except the aboriginal peoples were immigrants at some point). Religious newspapers had a strong appeal, especially in the 19th century. Other special newspapers, such as labour periodicals, also contain biographical information useful to researchers.
Immigrant groups wanted to keep in touch with one another for a number of reasons: because they had plenty in common, because they wanted news of the old country, because they needed a publication in their own language, not French or English. These needs might last more than the immigrant generation, too. The result was the publication of ethnic newspapers, some of which were for a specific city, and some of which were meant to serve a far-flung population.
Ways to Effectively Use Ethnic Newspapers
Genealogists intending to search for family members in these ethnic newspapers should remember that they would be in the original family language. You will be at a disadvantage if you cannot speak it, but that does not mean you must abandon the thought of looking at them. Approach the matter with an open mind.
- At best, consider learning some basic vocabulary and grammar of the language, because you are going to encounter this problem again in your research in other records, the further back you go.
- At the very least, have someone write down the words for birth, marriage, death and similar genealogical concepts for you.
- Obtain a dictionary which translates your language to English. Even the most obscure languages, such as Wend, now have dictionaries available. If you intend to do research on your family for any length of time, a good dictionary of their language is a necessity anyway.
- Remember that you are looking for personal names. In many languages, these will be immediately identifiable no matter what the context. If the language you are dealing with is inflected, have someone write down the inflected forms of the commonest names you are researching, to use as a reference list. If the language you are researching is in another alphabet (Cyrillic, perhaps, or Greek), have someone write down the names for you in that form, again as a reference list.
- Make a copy of any news items you find which seem to mention a family member. Photocopies are best, but transcriptions will do if photocopies are not available. It is important that transcriptions be absolutely accurate. Then find someone who speaks the language and have them do the translations for you. You will probably have to pay for this service.
Types of Information
What kind of news items can you hope to find? There are bound to be the usual BMD (births, marriages, deaths) columns, especially obituaries. There may be other items, if your relatives were politically active or involved in ethnic organizations. It may be that there is a family tradition which describes this involvement, but even if you have none, look for it in case the tradition has not been passed down. Here is an example. Niilo Hursti was born in Finland in 1901, came to Canada in the 1920s, settling in Timmins, Ontario. He worked in the mines there, but had always been interested in the theatre. He appeared in musicals, singing in performances for a number of Finnish organizations across northern Ontario for many years. Anyone researching his life for family history reasons would find reviews of the shows and news of his tours in the many Finnish newspapers published in that era. Finnish is a notoriously difficult language, but ‘Hursti’ or ‘Hurstinen’ are both easy to spot in newspaper type.
A basic question for all North American genealogists is finding where the family originated. If there is no family tradition about place of origin, searching in other resources may be necessary. Since immigrants tended to travel with, or settle with, people from their own home area, newspaper references may be useful in establishing that a group came from a certain village or province back home. There may even be a reference which links your relatives to a locale in the homeland.
Locating Ethnic Newspapers
The first step will be locating a newspaper which might be relevant to your search. There are bibliographies which will help:
- George Bonavia. Ethnic publications in Canada: newspapers, periodicals, magazines, bulletins, newsletters. Ottawa: Dept. of the Secretary of State of Canada, Multiculturalism, 1987.
- Canadian ethnic press review = Revue de la presse ethnique du Canada. Ottawa: Citizenship Branch, Secretary of State Dept., 1972-
- Andrew Gregorovich. Canadian ethnic press bibliography: ethnic, multilingual and multicultural press of Canada, selected bibliography. Toronto: Canadian Multilingual Press Federation, 1991.
- Andrew Machalski. The ethnic press in Canada. Toronto: Hilda Wilson Group, 1988.
The growth in interest in groups other than the two principal founding societies in Canada, which began in the 1960s and continues today, has meant that there are many compilations or studies similar to those listed above. Many of these will be unpublished, perhaps in the form of theses. Theses are another greatly underused genealogical resource. Canadian theses are deposited at the Library and Archives Canada (LAC), which makes them available on interlibrary loan on microfiche. Access to all these materials is very inexpensive and easy. There is no charge for the loan, and the theses are all listed in the Library and Archives Canada catalogue. Look at the online catalogue using the name of the ethnic group which interests you, or make a reference query to the LACvia their website.
You will also find that there have been studies of the newspapers of the particular group you are researching, or studies concentrating on a particular geographic area.
- Arja Pilli. The Finnish-language press in Canada, 1901-1939: a study in the history of ethnic journalism. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1982.
- Herbert Karl Kalbfleisch. The history of the German newspapers of Ontario, Canada, 1835-1918. London, University of Western Ontario, 1968.
- The multilingual press in Manitoba. Winnipeg: Canada Press Club, 1974.
These studies may not be book-length. Articles or essays may be found in periodicals or collections, accessible through using periodical indexes or by database searching. An example is “The Chinese press in the United States and Canada since World War II: a diversity of voices,” by Him Mark Lai, published in Chinese America: history and perspectives 1990 (Chinese Historical Society of America, 1990).
Since many of these ethnic newspapers served a wide area, you may need to consult an expert on the ethnic group to see which newspaper would have been the most popular or the most likely to include your family. There are considerations other than geographical ones, also. Particular newspapers might have catered to factions within the ethnic group, and you should know which faction your family might have favoured. For example, the Finns of northern Ontario in the period between the wars and especially after World War II were divided between Red Finns (those who favoured the socialist or communist system) and White Finns (those who did not). Feelings ran quite high between the two groups.
There may also have been divisions based on cultural differences from the homeland which drew a line between emigrants in Canada. These may not necessarily have been particularly antagonistic, but simply reflected interests or feelings from an earlier time. For your own family history narrative, you should be aware of how your relatives felt about these issues, but knowledge of them will also help you in choosing resources such as ethnic newspapers here.
One of the best resources for persons doing ethnic research in Ontario is the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, based in Toronto. They have an enormous archives, which includes newspapers. Many ethnic newspapers were microfilmed as a joint project of the Archives of Ontario and the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, and a catalogue published, Multicultural newspapers (Toronto: Archives of Ontario, 1992). These films are available on interlibrary loan from AO; their catalogue of materials to be lent can be found on their website.
The difficulty, of course, is determining whether there is a newspaper for your ethnic group in a time period which interests you. The Multicultural History Society of Ontario has made it easy to answer this question, by using the handbook, A guide to the collections of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, compiled by Nick G. Forte; edited and with an introduction by Gabriele Scardellato (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1992). There are newspaper listings under each ethnic group, with details of publication years.
Other provincial archives will also include non-English and non-French newspapers in their collections; consult their catalogues and websites. Many ethnic groups have their own archives if they are large enough to support them. The Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada in Winnipeg, for example, has back issues of Jewish newspapers and a computerized index of articles from them. Their database includes a category ‘genealogy’ which includes over 18,000 references. The form of the computer entries is an abstract of the contents, including most personal names.
Although most religious denominations still publish newspapers today, not many adherents to the church probably subscribe, and virtually none would think of publishing their BMD (birth, marriage, death) announcements in them. They now deal principally with religious politics or events of the church hierarchy, and although they contain obituaries, they are largely for church worthies of one kind or another.
This was not true in the past, especially in the 19th century, when our ancestors took their religion much more seriously than we do now. For many of them, the religious newspaper provided not only information about the denominational structure, but also everyday news and spiritual material, either meditations or uplifting fiction. Since the newspaper circulated throughout their area among people with whom they shared interests, they may have wanted their BMD announcements made there. Many of their acquaintances were probably of the same sect as themselves.
Location of Subscribers
It is important to remember that in the pioneer period, newspapers often travelled long distances through the mail to subscribers. It was, therefore, not unusual for a family to subscribe to a journal published in Toronto, Hamilton or Kingston although they lived in the wilds of Simcoe County in the 1840s, or to a paper published in Winnipeg if they were in Prince Albert in 1905.
In an area where a great many people shared the same religious beliefs, a religious newspaper might have the same functions as a community newspaper. This appears to have been the case in some parts of the Atlantic Provinces, where there were many Baptist communities. In Newfoundland, of course, many outports were principally Anglican or Roman Catholic.
Canadian researchers are fortunate in that our census asked a question about the religion of those being listed, and even made a distinction between different groups within a particular denomination. This is very valuable now, when we may no longer know which kind of Methodist or Presbyterian our ancestors considered themselves. Once we can establish the religion of a family, we can ask if there was a denominational newspaper with a wide circulation at the time.
Finding Religious Newspapers
It may be that the newspaper in question was so well known that it would be listed in genealogical handbooks or even general works on research in a particular area. If not, turn to a church history for that sect, which will include some account of the newspaper, or ask at the church archives, which is also the best place to turn for copies of the microfilm for the journal. The archivist will quickly be able to answer questions about what titles were published and where they are now available for study.
It may also be possible to find lists of religious newspapers in bibliographies or handbooks. For example, Terrence Punch lists Nova Scotian titles in his Genealogical research in Nova Scotia (1998).
It is vital to remember that the newspaper may have been published at some distance from where your family lived, and that the location may be very different from what we expect. A pair of researchers in Elmira, Ontario were mystified by the lack of obituaries for their ancestors who lived in northern Waterloo County about 1850. No local newspaper mentioned them, although they had been early settlers and worthy citizens. A librarian suggested trying a religious newspaper, based on the known affiliation of the family with the Church of the Brethren, a form of German Baptist. After considerable work, the researchers found a Church of the Brethren newspaper published in that era in Cleveland, Ohio, not only far away, but in another country. They looked in it, and discovered lengthy obituaries for both people had been published there, to their considerable surprise. This Cleveland title was obviously the ‘home paper’ for this Brethren family in Waterloo County.
Indexes and Abstracts
Once you locate the newspaper of your denomination, ask if there have been indexes prepared. The archives might have a card file or database created for its own local use, or there may be published indexes in book form. An Ontario Baptist publication, The Christian Messenger, was published first in Brantford and then in Hamilton. The Hamilton Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society has been publishing transcriptions from this paper for many years.
Here is a Nova Scotia example:
- A. James McCormick. The Presbyterian witness and evangelical advocate', Halifax, N.S.: vital statistics.Middleton, N.S.: J. & S. McCormick, 1992-1995. 8 volumes, covering 1847-1908. Reprinted 2000 by Pictou County Roots Society.The Presbyterian witness was published in Halifax from 1848 to 1925
One of the most important series of religious newspaper extractions is Donald A. McKenzie’s death notices from various Methodist newspapers, which now covers a significant part of the 19th century:
- Death notices from the Christian guardian, 1836-1850. Lambertville, N.J.: Hunterdon House, 1982.
- Death notices from the Christian guardian, 1851-1860. Lambertville, N.J.: Hunterdon House, 1984.
- More notices from Methodist papers, 1830-1857. Lambertville, N.J.: Hunterdon House, 1986.
- Obituaries from Ontario’s Christian guardian, 1861-1870. Lambertville, N.J.: Hunterdon House, 1988.
- Death notices from the Canada Christian advocate, 1858-1872. Lambertville, N.J.: Hunterdon House, 1992.
- More notices from Ontario’s Methodist papers, 1858-1872. Ottawa: D.A. McKenzie, 1993.
- Obituaries from Ontario’s Christian guardian, 1873-1880. Ottawa: D.A. McKenzie, 1996.
- Obituaries from The Canada Christian Advocate, 1873-1884. Ottawa: D.A. MacKenzie, 1998.
- More obituaries from Ontario’s Methodist papers, 1873-1884. Ottawa: D.A. McKenzie, 2001.
Although McKenzie is indexing a number of titles, the most significant is the Christian Guardian, published in Toronto from 1829 to 1925, ending only with the demise of the Methodist Church when the United Church was formed. It joined with the Presbyterian Witness and the Canadian Congregationalist to form New Outlook representing the new denomination. As with secular community newspapers, religious newspapers tended to change their name, and to merge with other papers from time to time, which will confuse researchers who are not on the lookout for these anomalies.
The Canada Christian Advocate was the organ of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada, published in Hamilton, Ontario, from 1845 to 1884. If your family belonged to a group with many competing divisions (including the Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists), be sure the newspaper you are examining is for the correct organization.
If a religious newspaper had a strong regional emphasis, the indexes may be published with the geographical area as the focal point. The Religious Intelligencer of Saint John, New Brunswick was a Baptist publication but it served as local newspaper for parts of the province. It was published from 1858 to 1905, and is now available on microfilm from Acadia University in Wolfeville, Nova Scotia, which is Baptist in origin and has strong interests in Baptist history. The paper’s focus can be seen from its previous title (before 1858) which was, in full, Religious Intelligencer and Bible Society, Missionary and Sabbath School Advocate.
Joan Davis and Janice Seeley have published extracts from this paper under the title Sunbury County happenings: news items from the Religious Intelligencer in and around Sunbury County, compiled from microfilms, Provincial Archives, New Brunswick, Canada. Although the extracts are similar in nature to those from a community paper, with births, deaths and marriages, fires and accidents, many of them contain comments of an evangelical religious nature, particularly the obituaries, in which many of those mentioned died ‘in peace’ or ‘rejoicing’ as was the religious style of those days. The actual date of baptism of some people is given in the death notices, this being believer’s or adult baptism, not the christening of infants.
Researchers may also find selected extracts from the religious titles, if someone has gone through them looking for references for a particular geographic area only. An example of this kind of title is Norfolk newspaper records: obituary notices, “Christian Guardian” Methodist newspaper, 1830-1850 (Simcoe, Ont.: Norfolk Historical Society, 1985?). Since the publication of a title such as this is unpredictable, it would only be found by a very general obituary search in the catalogue of a local library.
More modern religious publications might still contain information of a family nature, although it may be rarer or more difficult to locate. The 5 December 1940 issue of The Catholic Register (Toronto) includes an account of a couple’s silver wedding, at which eleven of their children took communion; a long obituary of M. J. O’Brien of Renfrew; a list of the officers of the Holy Name Society of St. Ann’s parish, Toronto; the Inter-Loreto Music Festival winners; the golden jubilee of Br. Jerome FSC and many more obituaries of ordinary Catholics.
Families which had strong religious connections or clergymen as members will have left material in these titles, but researchers will also want to examine the church news in community newspapers.
Some of these newspapers may reflect the religious convictions of the editor, but others will have news of every denomination in town, in an effort to attract as many readers as possible.
The St. Mary’s Argus in Ontario included a long account of a Methodist camp meeting in Grimsby in its issue of 18 August 1881. The names mentioned are mostly those of the clergy in attendance, but the meeting may be of interest to researchers who know that their ancestors met at one of these meetings.
Camp meetings were evangelical gatherings, often very large and lasting for several days. People camped in tents (hence the name) and attended services, prayer meetings and hymn singing.
They were a common place to meet potential spouses and as a member of the Ontario Genealogical Society observed at Seminar 2002, “There were always lots of weddings right after the camp meetings.” An account of a camp meeting where ancestors met would be a fine addition to the narrative family history.
As for clergy, the departure of students for seminary was probably a cause for comment in the social column. Ordinations and subsequent missionary work or the gaining of a first charge would all be likely events for the newspaper.
|The Stratford Presbytery met on Tuesday last in the Manse at Motherwell and examined Mr. A. B. Baird prior to his examination as a missionary to Fort Edmonton, N.W. Territory. (St. Mary’s Argus, 18 August 1881)|
The interesting thing about this item is the lack of denominational name. Either the editor presumed everyone would know, or his religious interests were so narrow that he only wrote about one group, and all his readers knew what it was. In the 25 August issue, there is a long account of Mr. Baird’s ordination and his departure for Fort Edmonton.
Later newspapers often carried more detailed accounts of church group meetings which can provide glimpses of our ancestors’ lives. We get an idea of how they lived, and perhaps will find material for inclusion in the family history narrative.
| Splendid Meeting, Simcoe St. W.M.S.|
The monthly meeting of the Women’s Missionary Society of Simcoe Street United Church was held on Thursday afternoon in the church. The President, Mrs. Dougall, was in the chair. The meeting opened by the singing of a hymn, followed by prayer by Mrs. Dougall and the Scripture, reading, the 46th Psalm, by Mrs. Percie Maybee. Miss Jean Keddie then sang a very pleasing solo. New Year thoughts were given by four of the ladies, taken from clippings of many years ago. The four ladies were Mrs. Turney, Mrs. Henderson, Mrs. John and Mrs. Mundy. The minutes of the December meeting were rady by Mrs. Marion Burns, and the Treasurer’s report was given by Mrs. Stephenson after which Mrs. Leo Gray sang a solo. Mrs. T. H. Everson gave a most interesting talk on the W.M.S. from its early days. On Nov. 8th, 1881 the churches organized the W.M.S. and on Jan. 28, 1885, the Oshawa churches held their first W.M.S. meeting. In the month of October 1888 the first W.M.S. meeting was held in Simcoe street church with a very small attendance. Mrs. De Mille was the first president and held that office until her removal from town. Mrs. Jas. Luke was the second president, followed by Mrs. Keddie, Mrs. Oliver Hezzlewood and many other ladies down through the years have shared the honors and responsibilities and now Simcoe street W.M.S. is one of the most efficient and prosperous in the Bay of Quinte Conference.
Miss Jackson, who spent the larger part of her life at Nelson House, kindly consented to be present and gave a most interesting description of her life and work at Nelson House. A hearty vote of thanks was tendered Miss Jackson at the close of her talk. The meeting closed with a hymn and the repeating of the Mizpah Benediction. The February meeting will be in charge of Miss Burns and Mrs. Armour. (Oshawa Daily Reformer, 7 January 1927)
The genealogical value of this item is marred by the lack of Christian names for many of the woman mentioned, but the history of the society is interesting, because of the former presidents who are mentioned (there may be a family member there). Mrs. Everson’s detailed talk indicates that there were some records for her to consult to obtain the exact dates she gives, and which may still be available for research to family historians, unless of course she was using her own private papers, which may not have survived. We also again notice the newspaper’s odd habit of using the form ‘Simcoe street W.M.S’.
In addition to newspapers for certain ethnic or religious groups, there are many others aimed at organizations or special interests. These can be as varied as human life itself, and if we know that a family member was part of any given group, we might ask if there is a publication we should examine.
In people’s working lives, there are corporate newsletters, many of which include staff news, particularly about retirements or longserving employees.
Genealogists often find it difficult to obtain exact information about the working life of individuals within the family—when they first joined a company and how long they worked there. Especially for those who spent a lifetime working for the same employer, it is important to know this for their biography in the family history. Company newsletter accounts of the person’s retirement, or their receiving an award for 25 years’ service, will probably supply exactly this kind of information, and may also have some fulsome tribute from a supervisor which can be used in the biography.
Company newsletters can be found in their own archives, and sometimes in local archives also. Many corporations have placed their archives in a public institution for safekeeping, particularly universities’ special collections.
The other side of corporate newsletters are publications from unions. Because of their aim of creating a feeling of solidarity of the workers, there is a great deal of personal information about individuals in union publications. They can also provide a different point of view vis-à-vis the lives of our relatives. In Union News, the newsletter of the Sudbury Mine and Smelter Workers Union for July 1936, there is a long obituary for Gust Bystrom, who died at work. Interestingly, there is no family data, but a great many details about his involvement with the union and his work history. This would be a tremendous find for a researcher, who probably would not have this information in any other form.
Other publications might provide background information about the working lives of relatives, to give us some understanding of their situations. One very useful recent series is Echo Soundings, reprinted marine news from the Amherstberg Echo, a community newspaper in Essex County, Ontario. This series extracts information about boats on the Great Lakes passing through the area from Lake Erie to Lake Huron between Ontario and Michigan.
Many families were involved with these boats, both on the water and in the surrounding towns. Genealogists who know which boats their relations worked on will find references here which they can use, or simply background information.
|The first steamer for Lake Superior ports is expected to leave Sarnia on May 1st, ice permitting. The tug Home Rule had her first wrecking job of the season on Tuesday when she released the sandsucker Ohio from Elliott’s Point. (both items from 24 April 1896)|
The fact that this newspaper material has been extracted and indexed for us makes the research that much easier and more pleasurable.
The most difficult aspect of finding these specialised publications is realising that a particular title exists. It can be worthwhile simply to spend time browsing through the list of publications held at a local institution where our family lived, to see if any title catches our eye. Many of these newspapers are very small, and searching through a run of them will not take as much time as a community newspaper, but may well yield significant information.
In larger institutions, the publications list may be very long. However, periodicals lists are often produced in several formats, one of which is by place of publication. Watch for these. It is a simple matter to look through the location list, to see if there are titles unfamiliar to you from the places where your family lived. Once you know the title exists, you can look at a few issues to see if it looks likely to provide you with information.
It may also be profitable to ask the archivist in a small archives for advice: “Do you have any corporate newsletters from Timex? My grandfather worked for them for many years.” Even if the archivist has nothing in her own collection, she may know where the newsletters are available.
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